Thursday, November 8, 2012

Happiness in Bhutan

Forgive a repeat but I didn't get a chance to mention Bhutan again today and I wanted to highlight an interesting paper from 2010 that perhaps raises more questions than it answers. GDP and its enemies: the questionable search for a happiness index by Johan Norberg.

Last week I briefly mentioned Bhutan, a small country on the Eastern end of the Himalayas, as a country that has a lot of forest left. Bhutan is largely a budhist country and it is one of the few countries in the world to have embraced happiness. Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world based on a global survey. The government must consider every policy for its impact not only on  Gross Domestic Product, but also on GNH: "Gross National Happiness".

I mention Bhutan and happiness because it illustrates why this topic is important to conservation - Bhutan's gross national happiness measure has led to decrees  that 60 percent of the country remain covered in forest.

However other measures, whether you agree with them or not, involve a lot more government intervention than most Americans would he happy with. The examples are from this BBC article in 2006 but there are lots of articles on Bhutan and its quest for happiness - just google Bhutan and happiness.

  • Bhutan was the last nation in the world to introduce television in 1999.  Recently they banned a number of channels including international  wrestling and MTV, which they felt did little to promote happiness.

  • Bhutan has banned plastic bags and tobacco on the grounds that they make the country less happy.

  • Bhutan had one traffic light but they got rid of it because people found it frustrating. There's a person directing traffic there now.

  • But the paper cited above by Johan Norberg raises some problematic questions:

    If we replaced GDP with some sort of well-being measure, we would have to come to an agreement on what well-being is; and there is a risk that governments would be tempted to take a one-size-fits-all approach and try to make us all wear the result. We have seen how the Bhutanese happiness index has been used as a rationalisation to force minorities to live in the preferred way. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but it is interesting that it is so often used as a positive example by those who seek to do away with GDP.

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